a few weeks ago, npr ran a story on why black people, er, excuse me, african(-)americans "loathe" uncle tom. lately, the blatantly obvious has been getting a lot of play in the media (cnn's black in america, anyone?) these days, but that's neither here nor there. the story was a part of the station's in character series, and my beloved michelle norris interviewed a folklorist who discussed the ways in which stowe's characters were extracted from the novel, and reworked (read: distorted), and subsequently occupied an incredibly profound role in 19th century america's popular culture psyche.
i forwarded the story to a friend of mine. we both agreed that the highlight of the interview was the folklorist's response to a question inquiring about the possibility of uncle tom not eliciting such a negative response amongst folks. she said, "i don't think the real uncle tom will ever be restored from the shackles of distortion." damn. the homie and i masticated on that nugget of commentary for a bit, flirted with a book idea, and then probably ended up talking about barack obama, as we are wont to do.
along with the school gig, i work as a research assistant for a professor. occasionally, my job requires that i read old newspapers and magazines; i look for anything from serialized stories and book reviews to obituaries. the work, though sometimes tedious, can be interesting and rewarding. one of the highlights of this kind of job is looking at advertisements in the paper. from skin bleaching treatments to hair straighteners to pancake mix, i find them all fascinating. maybe i just dig mammies and old black uncles (not the jeremiah wright kind) enticing me to buy syrup or rice. after all, i am an american. (note to self: search for and bid on a topsy doll over on ebay.)
these days, of course, we like to purport that we are wiser and much more evolved than the early 20th century consumer. so mammies and such don't get as much play as they used to. aunt jemima gets a texturizer. or is it a perm? and, i guess, since we've nearly exorcised our consuming selves of all branding with stereotypical images of negroes inspired by those glorious plantation days (i'll take my stand, too, goddamnit!), we can now (again) turn to other countries to make sure they walk in our footprints. in other words, it's time for memin pinguin: the sequel.
in the wonderfully titled, "negrito please," (what can i say? i love puns.), tamara walker, a contributer to the root, interrogates a figure--one that she sees as a stereotype of black folks, one that falls in line with previous images on american products, and thusly offensive-- she encountered while visiting mexico. bimbo, a baked goods company, likes to advertise its goods to our southern neighbors with the help of negrito, a "little black black boy," who apparently enjoys sweets. walker has two questions: 1) why doesn't she see these images on package in the states? and 2) why do mexico and other latin american countries continue to use them?
walker didn't have to spend an entire article answering these inquiries, as i think i can do it more quickly: 1) you don't find these images in the u.s. because american negroes just wouldn't have it. 2) i imagine, and this is just an educated guess, that discourse(s) on race might not be the same south of the border. so maybe the images can be used "down there," because those inhabitants view them in a different context. then again, who am i? i barely paid attention in honors spanish.
i've written about this before; i'll repeat, expound. context is crucial. the american exceptionalist rhetoric applies to negroes, too. i suppose since we feel that we've been relatively successful in ridding ourselves of negrito, et. al. images to advertise products, that we are master teachers on the whole stereotypical image game, that other people do or should react to such images in the way that we do. if they don't, surely they must be complicit in accepting, if not also spreading, a certain form of racism. maybe. maybe not. american exceptionalism implies superiority. it also suggests difference. can we simultaneously argue for a unique experience, and demand that people respond in the way we do... to pictures? i'm not sure we can.
further, in spanish speaking countries, negrito is actually a term of endearment. so for walker to simply translate the name "negrito" literally, without providing its actual meaning is slightly disingenuous. not that walker's point is totally off base. i mean, clare's husband did call her lovingly referred to her as "nig." yet at the same time, brian was adament about moving to brazil, because he believed that race (and racism) worked differently there. calling someone (like a barack obama, for example) a little black boy would undoubtedly warrant a smack in the face; or, for the non-violent, politically correct types, an issued apology by the offending perpetrator. if someone calls you "negrito/a" in mexico, however, it more than likely calls for humming a bar or two of jt's "sexy back." in other words, we cannot so easily apply our ideological perspectives, and sensitivities, onto other countries, into other contexts.
finally, and walker tepidly acknowledges this, erasing bandannad black women from our grocery store aisles doesn't mean we've overcome. i want to take that point a bit further. of course we don't have these images on food packaging; we don't need them. the topsies, the jemimas and uncle bens have all been replaced--by real black people. to return to uncle tom, it doesn't really matter if he'll be recovered from his distortion. black people have become caricatures of themselves. just ask debra lee how her bank account stays so fat, or vh1 how they get their show ideas.
on a lighter note, personally, i think packaging changes make the cream of wheat, etc. taste different. i might be an exception, though.
5 hours ago